“Oh, that’s great. I just don’t have time to read anymore.”
These are often the first words I hear after explaining that I teach literature. In a culture increasingly on the move and offering a thousand different ways to get shrink-wrapped stories, reading novels can seem daunting. Some people only find the space in their schedules for entertainment; others are tempted to reject fiction in favor of “real life” (the news or the latest biography).
So, why read literature?
Some of our most important lessons are conveyed not by Buzzfeed list or instruction manual, but through stories, metaphors and recurring symbols. To truly understand the weight of the Holocaust, we do not introduce statistics but instead ask young people to read Anne Frank’s diary. This is certainly not that to avoid the facts but quite the contrary; some things are so blindingly true they can only be approached effectively through story.
Rather than getting swamped in overwhelming amounts of data, literature helps us to focus our vision. Literature helps the scales fall from our eyes.
How’s Your Posture?
Not only does it help us to approach and cope with the indescribable – reading also teaches us humility and empathy. Literature demands that you truly listen to the author and perform the work of interpretation. Without camera angles or music cues, without retweets and reports, the novel demands from us our full attention, with no promise of perfect certainty. We must imagine and reflect, admit our confusion, and allow for our hopes.
This work, this patience and honesty, I would argue, is essential for our souls. We must engage in stories larger than our need for expertise or entertainment.
Literature forms in us a posture of receptivity and curiosity, an attitude which directly contradicts the world’s clamor for opinion.
By teaching us how to listen, literature also teaches us how to converse with one another the way we ought – with compassion and humility rather than instant judgment.
When we meet characters, we are able to see others with mercy in a way we would not if they remained merely issues and abstracts. The saint and the sinner become complicated in the web of story that teaches us to reflect on our complexities. Rather than feed us information, books raise questions, questions that will not simply send us racing to the next course of action or bolster our pre-made opinions.
Know Literature, Know Yourself
Only literature can teach us to focus on the how and the why instead of the what and the “What happens next?”. The “How” and “Why” are the questions that make us moral, the questions we need to ask for depth of soul rather than simply breadth of knowledge.
Any voice can shout to us the “facts” of ever-increasing villains and ever-persecuted heroes. But only fiction can reveal how villains come to be and why we must learn to forgive.
We read fiction to learn how to read ourselves.
Michelle Hindman is a literature teacher at a classical school in Colorado. She is a graduate of Westmont College.